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Welcome to the firm! You’ve toiled most of your life to reach this point — buckling down in high school to improve your chance of Ivy League admission, tailoring your college curriculum to showcase your pre-law promise, and mastering abstruse logic games to ace the LSAT. The reward for all that hard work? Three years of Socratic fear and loathing with a bar exam chaser. It’s time to be happy, right? After keeping your nose to the proverbial grindstone and deferring fun and frivolity to reach this day, you are now a first-year associate at a prestigious law firm. The digs are great, the pay is incredible — but did you have to check your dreams at the door? Lawyers are by their very nature a serious and hard-working bunch — experts at delayed gratification. Most understand that the “brass ring” is elusive, and the first years of practice can offer large doses of tedium interrupted by occasional infusions of sheer panic. But given the sacrifices one must make to enter the profession, both financial and temporal, where is the payoff? Certainly, our choices in life and their consequences are given context by the times in which we live. In other words, timing is everything. Just days after I launched my Wall Street legal career in the fall of 1987, Black Monday happened — the largest stock market drop in history, when the Dow lost almost 23 percent of its value in one day. That was a jarring introduction to the impact of markets on corporate law firm practice, but it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for transactional practice. That stock market “correction” — while it appeared cataclysmic at the time — was a ripple in the pond compared with the events of Sept. 11. Having just observed the first anniversary of the attacks, career decisions, like all of life’s choices, stand in sharper relief. While no one discounts the importance of planning for the future, we are all struck by the sense that each of us must make today matter. A WONDERFUL LIFE That’s just what my Columbia Law School classmate Matt Leonard did in his short lifetime. A Cantor Fitzgerald lawyer who perished on Sept. 11, Matt always gave 110 percent to every endeavor. Though he was a very smart guy — great grades, top firm job, and a prestigious Southern District of New York clerkship — more important to Matt than making a lot of money was doing good. Maybe it was his Jesuit upbringing or perennially sunny outlook, but Matt came closer to embodying the values of “It’s a Wonderful Life” than anyone I’ve ever seen. When Matt dedicated countless hours to pro bono organizations, ultimately earning a seat on the board of MFY Legal Services, recognition was the furthest thing from his mind. He volunteered to chair his 15th law school reunion, not for the fabulous networking opportunity it would offer with his now-successful classmates, but because he genuinely enjoyed bringing people together. When Matt stopped on a snowy street corner to sing Christmas carols with a homeless man, he didn’t do it to win points — just dimes and quarters for his duet partner. The federal judge for whom Matt clerked said of him, “He was probably one of the kindest law clerks I ever had. . . . It is a loss beyond the measure of comprehension.” Imagine inspiring that kind of eulogy. Lately, stories of compassion, courage, and heroism appear alongside accounts of greed, fraud, and coverups by accountants, lawyers, and other corporate fiduciaries. Where can today’s junior associates look for role models? How can a novice professional align her moral compass in a world where integrity and honesty seem to be in short supply? In counseling hundreds of law students and lawyers over the past decade, I’ve observed that our profession is, on the whole, full of closet idealists. Law school is an affirmative choice over business school largely due to a desire for deeper purpose. In spite of steadily climbing starting salaries, most law students say they pursued a legal education to “make a difference.” Many would gladly forgo some of the money for a greater sense of purpose — they just don’t know where to start. More disturbing, they believe that career choices are binary, and that good comes only in the form of public interest and sacrifice; working in a law firm is viewed as “selling out” and utterly incompatible with deriving meaning from practice. Where is the archetype of the public-private partnership? When did the term “corporate citizen” become an oxymoron? Somehow, the associate position has become a professional way station, a means to an end. Law students assume that private practice will not provide job satisfaction, but will somehow magically transport them after a few years to a more desirable and meaningful career destination. The familiar law student refrain “I don’t see myself staying in a firm too long” is usually followed by “I want to keep my options open.” FOCUS, LEARN, OBSERVE Happily, the search for a meaningful start in legal practice and the pursuit of career mobility can both find resolution in the same approach. Simply put, the best way to plan for tomorrow is to strive for excellence in all you do today. It might sound like a Hallmark card, but a real investment in and commitment to your current responsibilities and relationships will lead to future opportunities. As Mom used to say, nothing succeeds like success. The best way to keep your options open is to see yourself as a law firm associate. Devote yourself to private practice, and to your chosen employer, 110 percent. Why bother, you ask, if you’re a short-timer? In the first place, your firm has earned your commitment, given how much they are paying you. More important, your clients will demand and deserve all of the energy, focus, and skill that you can muster. You might not think that Megacorp A’s skirmish over market share with Megacorp B is “meaningful,” but it certainly is to the employees whose livelihood is tied to the outcome of the case, not to mention the shareholders whose 401(k)s are heavy in Megacorp A stock. Lives may not depend upon the accuracy of your research or the precision of your due diligence, but you should care as if they did. Start now to define your professional identity. From this day forward, everyone you encounter, from opposing counsel to court clerks to clients to law firm partners, will be drawing conclusions about you as a lawyer and as a person. If you don’t see yourself as a successful law firm associate, neither will anyone else. You may think that your antipathy to private practice is invisible to all but your closest friends. Think again: Partners and senior associates can spot apathy from a mile away, and they are much too busy to waste their valuable time and energy training and mentoring uncommitted associates. If your goal is mobility, remember that successful law firm associates have many options, and unsuccessful ones have few. Every day of your law firm life is an audition — you don’t even know for whom and for what role. Your supervisors, colleagues, adversaries, and clients are constantly sizing you up — judging your competency, attitude, and future prospects. While you are yawning through some midlevel’s interminable drafting session or doodling during a deposition, you are being observed. Even that game of Nerf basketball to break up the monotony of due diligence does not go unnoticed. BE A SPONGE Learning is an attitude, and observation is an active process. Think of yourself as a sponge and seek out opportunities for soaking up information, skills, and professional lessons. Trapped in a partner’s office while he argues with co-counsel on an unrelated matter? Instead of silently seething or playing Tetris on your Palm Pilot, learn from this lesson. Consider the attorney’s negotiation style. What can you observe about this pro’s approach? What would you do differently? Try to be inconspicuous — don’t smile, nod at his good points, or hold up score cards rating his performance, but take notes. Test your own law firm lingo — how many buzzwords does the partner use that you don’t understand? Make a discreet note of them (on that trusty legal pad you are never without) and look them up later. Real substantive training and meaningful feedback are not your birthright. They are the reward for your hard work and for winning the confidence of more-experienced attorneys at your firm. Associates who view the world with a sense of entitlement do not inspire the loyalty and helpful guidance of partners. And a junior associate without a partner or influential senior associate to watch his back often “falls through the cracks” — ending up with too few assignments and facing obscurity, if not outright dismissal, come evaluation time. RECORD YOUR HIGHS AND LOWS You’ll never be able to identify your dream job — let alone obtain it — until you know where your passion lies. Keep a detailed record of your projects — not just substance and skills, but highlights and lowlights. Note accomplishments by the firm’s standards, as well as your own. Take a daily reading of your emotional barometer. Note the sources of your ups and downs, what comes easily and what is sheer torture, and what is a struggle but provides real satisfaction. Over time, this information will provide the road map to your dream job. The process might even reveal that you derive more meaning and satisfaction in your daily law firm grind — in the little things — than you ever expected. Your best lessons in professionalism will also come from the day-to-day things. Treat every client encounter, meeting with opposing counsel, or conference call as if it were an encounter with a future employer — it could be. Picture yourself being hired away by your firm’s biggest client. Envision earning a recommendation for a public sector job from your pro bono supervisor. Visualize your former partner referring a case to your new solo practice. It could happen — in fact, it happens every day. Move to a client’s legal department, and you may one day become your supervising partner’s client! Instead of conjuring up revenge fantasies, focus on practical ways to strengthen your current professional ties — they will last a long time. Strive to be known as a person of integrity. Resist the urge to start lying in little ways: The five minutes you “round up” on your time sheet today or the phony excuse to put off a deadline tomorrow could devolve into much more serious matters later on. Surely the professionals embroiled in corporate fraud today did not start out their careers with the aim to deceive. Never lose sight of what is honest and true. Write a letter to yourself now to crystallize your hopes and dreams in the law. Divulge your most treasured hopes about your professional future, your expectations, and your greatest fears. Review this letter every year at evaluation time to keep yourself on track. Your goals and aspirations may change because you’ve gained greater self-knowledge, but don’t give up on your dreams. In his 15 years of practice, my friend Matt built a life any lawyer would be proud to emulate. He followed his heart instead of his wallet. He always made time to do legal work for the poor, even when he worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center as a high-powered securities litigator. He never forgot where he came from, that first job as a high-school janitor, and he always treated everyone with respect. He represented the best the profession could be. And Matt always remembered to follow his bliss; he never stopped singing. As you strike out on your own path, remember why you became a lawyer. Approach every project, no matter how mundane, as if your professional reputation depended upon it. Find time to offer legal help to one of the 80 percent of Americans who cannot afford it. Preserve and protect what is best about your character; don’t let the practice or profession change you into a person you no longer respect. And most important, never forget to sing. Gail E. Cutter is director of career counseling and placement at New York University School of Law. She is a 1987 graduate of Columbia Law School and a former large-firm associate.

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